The UK risks stepping off the world stage by abandoning the fight against pandemics

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It’s time for the country to step in and step up the fight against killer diseases, says head of the Health and Social Care Committee

The UK risks stepping off the world stage by abandoning the fight against pandemics
Microsoft Corp. co-founder Bill Gates, Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida, French President Emmanuel Macron, European Commission President Ursula Von Der Leyen, US President Joe Biden, (RED) Ambassador Connie Mudenda, South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, and German Chancellor Olaf Scholz during a group photo session after attending the seventh replenishment conference of the Geneva-based Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis, and Malaria in New York
World leaders at the Global Fund’s replenishment pledging conference in New York CREDIT: YONHAP/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock

In his speech at Conservative Party Conference, my colleague the Foreign Secretary stated, “we don’t just stand idly by and watch problems happen, we step in to improve things”. 

We’ve seen this most clearly with our support for Ukraine against the Russian invasion, but we must be alert to all problems that threaten lives, security, and prosperity – both here and around the world.

However, we are yet to step in and pledge to the seventh replenishment of The Global Fund to Fight Aids, Tuberculosis and Malaria (Global Fund).

The Global Fund has helped to save over 50 million lives and reduce the combined death rate from HIV, TB and malaria by more than half in countries where the Global Fund invests. With the Covid-19 pandemic having a devastating impact on progress towards the eradication of these three diseases, the Global Fund’s replenishment pledging conference in September was vitally important. 

Many UK allies responded to the call for action and increased their funding significantly. Our allies the US, Japan, Canada, Germany and the European Commission met the Global Fund’s request for a 30 per cent increase on previous pledges. Several lower-income countries also did the same.

However, the UK was unable to pledge at this time, leaving the Global Fund far short of its $18 billion target, which is needed to get back on track to end the three diseases by 2030 and help countries prepare to fight new pandemics. Whilst I welcome the political support that the UK Government gave to the Global Fund at the pledging conference, words alone will do little to secure our health against pandemics. We cannot afford to look isolated and uninfluential on the world stage, we must act.

Failure to heed this call and stand by our allies damages our reputation and harms critical relationships with G7 and Commonwealth partners (more than half of the Global Fund’s grant funding goes to Commonwealth countries). 

Lives and diplomacy at stake

Furthermore, at a time when we must show a global united front against Russia and in support of Ukraine, cutting funding will exacerbate the impacts of the war, since the Global Fund is an essential donor to Ukraine’s health system and supports many African countries that are facing precarious economic situations due to the knock-on effects of the war.

India has the highest number of tuberculosis cases and South Africa and Nigeria have the highest numbers of HIV and malaria cases, respectively; what message are we sending to them and the wider Commonwealth if the UK cuts funding?

But much more than just our diplomacy is at stake. If the UK fails to match the ambition set by its peers, millions of lives will be at risk. A cut to the Global Fund resulting in a pledge of £800 million, compared to an increase in line with our allies, would put up to 1.9 million lives at risk, as well as 43 million new infections of across the three diseases, jeopardising decades of progress.

We cannot afford further short-sightedness; we must think long term. Covid-19, Monkeypox and now the recent Ebola outbreak all highlight the urgent need for the world to be better prepared to prevent, detect, and respond to future disease threats. Recent studies have found that over one-third of Global Fund investments contribute to health security and pandemic preparedness.

I now have the honour of being Chair of the Health and Social Care Committee. We all know diseases do not respect borders, and that another pandemic is a question of when, not if. To protect our NHS and nation’s health, I understand that we must invest in strengthening health systems abroad as well as at home.

It is clear that without an urgent return to the commitment to spend 0.7 per cent of our Gross National Income on Official Development Assistance (ODA), that we will continue to be put on the back foot by colliding global crises. 

Immediately, however, the Government must ensure that our welcome support for Ukrainian refugees is additional to the ODA budget. This simple decision, in line with other donors’ actions, would give the UK greater financial scope to deliver a stronger Global Fund pledge and more effectively respond to other global crises.

Time for the UK to step in and step up the fight against these killer diseases.

  • Steve Brine is the Conservative MP for Winchester and Chair of the Health and Social Care Committee.

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